Russia Is Prepared to Use Military Power to Defend Iran and Syria
“Russia is prepared to use military power to defend Iran and Syria. An attack on Syria or Iran is an indirect attack on Russia.”
This assertion by Col.-Gen. Leonid Ivashov, a former member of Russia’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview on Russia Today TV on Feb. 1, fairly represented the Kremlin line on the conflict in Syria and its opposition to Western policies for Iran’s nuclear weapon program.
In taking a hard line on the two most combustible issues of the day, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seeks much more than to fan Cold War fires with nationalist hot air, for the sake of winning his third term as president on March 4; he is laying the foundations of a comprehensive policy of confrontation with the United States to restore Russia’s superpower status. To this end, he is gladly extending a helping hand to any Middle East or Muslim factor willing to defy America.
This ambition transcends the Russian historic drive for warm water ports. Some Western and Israeli analysts assert that all Moscow wants is to maintain its presence in Syria’s Mediterranean ports of Tartus and Latakia and its lucrative arms market in Damascus. They argue that If Washington allows this – and refrains from sidelining Moscow as it did over the anti-Qaddafi operation in Libya – US and Russian interests in Iran would overlap and so prepare the way for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s fall.
This proposition was put forward by former Israeli Mossad chief and national security adviser Efraim Halevy, in the The New York Times of February 8.
But this thesis is not borne out in the information leaking out of the long conversation Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian SVR intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov held in Damascus with the Syrian president Tuesday, Feb. 7, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Moscow sources.
According to those sources, Russia’s support for Assad rule is guided by a quite different set of motives. Those motives impelled Russia to join China in vetoing the Security Council resolution demanding that the Syrian ruler step down and halt his brutal crackdown.
Moscow sees a US-Islamist world conspiracy
1. One such motive is the conviction that the US is conspiring with Islamist movements to bring them to power in Middle East, Persian Gulf and Central Asian countries by helping them displace the incumbent regimes. This belief dominates the thinking in top political, military and intelligence leadership circles in Moscow.
They regard this putative conspiracy as a direct threat to Russia’s national security given the country’s demography.
Muslim minorities make up 20 percent of the Russian population. Muslim Adyghe, Balkars, Chechens, Circassians, Ingush, Kabardin, Karachay and numerous Dagestani peoples are the majority in the North Caucasus and the regions between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Tatar and Bashkir peoples inhabiting the central Volga Basin are also predominantly Muslim.
The Russian fear of Muslim uprisings runs deep, harking back even before the Chechen revolt to the days of the Cold War.
Contemporary heads of the Kremlin believe that Washington has not fundamentally changed in the 33 years since a former Democratic administration headed by President Jimmy Carter was persuaded by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to let the Khomeinist Shiite revolution overthrow the Shah of Iran.
Carter and Brzezinski are also accused to this day of counting the moments to the Russian Communist Empire’s breakup based on the high Muslim birthrate which they predicted would make 70 percent of the Red Army Muslim – a prediction that was never fulfilled.
Therefore, an interview with Brzezinski on NBC News’ Morning Joe on Tuesday, Feb. 7 was enough to raise hackles in Moscow, especially when he downplayed Russian fears as “exaggerated” because Western powers were unlikely to antagonize China and Russia by meddling in their internal conflicts. But the former security adviser admitted that this fear might be “understandable” given past military interventions in Libya and former Yugoslavia.
Assad is Moscow’s favorite to win the civil war
2. Russian officials see Syria sliding into civil war. After weighing the domestic balance of power, they are betting on Assad as favorite to win the contest.
3. Moscow sees any Western-Arab intervention for toppling Assad as the prelude to an assault on the ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran.
While Russia’s strategic assets in Syria are often mentioned, its heavy stake in Iran, mostly in Tehran’s nuclear industry and program, receives much less prominence in the West. Russia designed and built Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, is responsible for its maintenance and is Tehran’s largest supplier of nuclear fuel rods.
Western and Israeli campaigns against Iran’s nuclear program are seen in Moscow as calculated to spoil Arab and Muslim markets for Russian nuclear technology sales and investment.
4. The Russians dismiss Western arguments for urging Assad’s removal as specious.
Former Russian Prime Minister and KGB head Yevgeny Primakov, a prominent Middle East expert and diplomatic veteran, explained the Russian veto to the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in an interview on Wednesday, Feb. 8: One reason, he said, was because the West-backed Arab League draft was one-sided, assigning all the blame for the crisis on the Assad government.
Moscow will give no quarter on Syria
“We [Russia] find that all the accusations are directed against the government troops and Assad personally, whilst his departure was framed as being inevitable.”
Primakov then referred to the Libyan operation: “They [the West] assured us that this [Security Council] resolution aimed at nothing more than to provide air cover to prevent Qaddafi using his air force against civilians. They deceived us, for this resolution aimed primarily to overthrow him.”
Turning back to Syria, the Russian diplomat asked: “If there are Western officials who are saying it is necessary that Assad leaves power, then I would ask them: Will this guarantee stability in Syria?”
These are the arguments put forward by Moscow for justifying their backing for Bashar Assad. And that is why the main purpose of the visit to Damascus by Sergei Lavrov and Mikhail Fradkov was to discuss ways of helping to strengthen Assad’s hand for fighting his opponents.